Fiji - On board the Nai'a,
amid the islands of Fiji,
September to October, 2002

My wife Diana Dickinson and I spent two weeks aboard the beautiful live-aboard dive boat Nai'a. I linked to a photograph on the right of the Nia'a at their website. Unfortunately, we never saw the sails up, but it was still a wonderful experience.

I took my Nikon D1X camera system with a new Seacam housing for its first thorough shake-out. I took all the photos below with this system and was very pleased with the overall results. Click on a photo to see a larger version. Note - the photos from the trip are randomly scattered through the trip report and don't correspond to the text.

I asked Diana to write the trip report below since she took very careful notes about what we saw and did a better job than I ever could in explaining the wonderful time we had.

Image from WWW.Nai'a.COM.FJ

Flying to Fiji: The Fijian islands are located in the south Pacific, and frankly, they�re in the middle of nowhere. Really. To get there, you have to fly Air Pacific from Los Angeles. So we started in Seattle at 5 PM, then flew to LA, then started searching LAX for Air Pacific, finally finding it two terminals over from

the Alaska terminal where we came in, sharing a desk with Qantas. It looked like they shared a desk with Qantas, anyway, but it turned out the Air Pacific counter is rented from Qantas, and there�s a very single line you have to stand in.

We had bought discounted tickets through Orbitz�we actually found it cheaper to fly Seattle>LAX>Fiji>Auckland (New Zealand)>LAX>Seattle than going directly to and from Fiji�but we upgraded to business class (�Tabua class� on Air Pacific) for $600 each, which meant we had some leg room for the 10 hour flight. We were very glad we�d done that when we saw how closely packed people were back in the main cabin. We took off from LAX around midnight, flew the ten hours, and arrived, staggeringly exhausted, at the crack of gorgeous Fijian dawn, 5:30 AM, two days later� You lose a day crossing the International Date Line, and we lost September 25th. It took a bit of doing to find the driver we�d arranged for�we were going to spend a few days in a resort before boarding the Nai'a�but we did, and drove the 45 minutes to the resort.

The Sonasali Island Resort was a luxurious and secluded setting that was utterly wasted on us, as all we wanted to do for the two days we spent there was sleep. Next time, we�ll fly in the morning of the departure, and go to the TokaToka, right next to the airport, and sleep there.

On Saturday September 28th, we were driven to the TokaToka from the Sonasali and met the bus arranged by the Nai'a for the drive to Lautoka, where the Nai'a was moored. We were met on the bus by Chuck Tribolet, who�d just spent a week diving on the Nai'a, and was staying for the two week excursion we were joining.

He warned us that once we hit the boat, everything would happen very fast so that we could get a check-out dive done and start motoring out of Lautoka. He also told us that we were lucky: another group had cancelled, and there would only be 8 divers for our trip, instead of the 16 Nai'a can take.

Chuck was right: in mere seconds after we arrived at the dock, everything had been loaded and we were underway. We were told to set up our equipment (I put mine together upside down, in a fog of confusion, but was gently corrected), but after that, we never needed to fiddle with it again. We motored out into the

harbor, moored in a shallow murky area, and did our checkout dive. The visibility (about 15 feet) was terrible, and my first thought was �oh shit! All that money, and terrible diving!� (Then I remembered Chuck telling us that this would be far the worst dive of the trip.) We made the best of it, found a bunch of critters (sea stars, nudibranchs, and such), and really didn�t stay underwater long.

The Nai'a is 120 feet, a steel monohull, beautifully maintained, and feels incredibly solid. Most of the crew has

been on the boat since it was brought to Fiji by Rob (as is described on the Nai'a�s web site) and they seem completely confident in Ravai (the captain) and in each other.  I found this very comforting, as we had occasional rough weather for the entire trip. (Captain Ravai did make sure we moored for the night in sheltered areas, whenever he could.)

I�ll state this upfront: we had terrible weather. It was windy, it was rainy, it was cloudy, it was sunny for only one morning the entire two weeks, and it was rough enough that some passengers needed Dramamine. We were told this was unusual weather, but I guess it�s happened before during the same late

September-early October period, as we have friends who told us later about their similar trip. However, I will also say that I�d prefer to go back when it�s sunny, but the diving was still AMAZING, and I�d go back even if it was rough, rainy, and cloudy for the entire trip again. (But I�d take an extra sweatshirt.)

Our cabin was comfortable, although not huge. It had its own bathroom (tiny) and we were told we needed to be careful about fresh water, but not stingy; the showerhead was extremely meager with water�but who cares, since it was nice hot water? We had a queen size bed that required a climb to get into (making it interesting when we were in rough

patches) and a well-designed storage area. All the dive equipment was stored up on the dive deck, and the cameras had a dedicated camera room. (Of the eight passengers on board, I was the only non-photographer. The Nai'a has great facilities for photographers�plenty of room, and two huge freshwater rinse tanks reserved for cameras.)

The food was great. There was an early-morning snack before the first dive, and a chance to sign up for the day�s meals, which usually included a fish option, a meat option, and a vegetarian option. The schedule pretty much ran like this:

Snack-dive-breakfast-nap-dive-lunch-nap-dive-snack-night dive-dinner� sleep. It was possible to dive more than four times a day if you wanted to, and dive times were fairly flexible. I don�t much like night dives, but I find dusk dives fascinating (watching the changeover), and several crepuscular dives were arranged just for Jay and me.

I was worried before the trip about being so completely out of touch. It turns out that it�s possible, for a mere $4 (US) per minute, you can use the Nai'a�s satellite phone. While we didn�t get any news while we were gone�which was wonderful�we were able to check and make sure our kids were okay, and didn�t miss us too much.

About packing for a liveaboard: bring lots of bathing suits�they take a while to dry�and a few other things. I found a sulu (also called a sarong or a pareu) and a sweatshirt to be all I really needed most of the time. And the sweatshirt wouldn�t have been needed if we�d had more sun. Shower shoes or flip-flops are useful if you don�t want to walk around the boat barefoot.

The Fijian culture has a problem with knee exposure�for men or for women�but that wasn�t a problem on the boat, although during the village visit (more below) everyone had to wear a sulu. (They seem to make an exception for tourists, in any case.) Actually, I really like that about Fiji. It was nifty seeing

policemen in a neat organized uniform of bula shirt (think aloha shirt in more subdued colors) and zigzag-hem wraparound sulu (think tailored skirt). The Fijians are truly welcoming, everyone says �bula� (which is a combination of �hello� and �welcome�) and �bula vinaka� (bula �very much�)�and they mean it.

The village visit: I didn�t go. I had a terrible cold for one day of the trip, and it happened to be that day. I had visions of giving my cold to the entire village, and it seemed a good idea not to go. But Jay went, and and has included his report. I know everyone had a good time.

Now, to talk about the diving: it was incredible, amazing, astonishing� Before this trip, I�d done a lot of diving in Hawaii�the Kohala Coast mostly (with a trip to Maui, once). I

like diving in Hawaii, as I see lots of interesting things: the occasional whitetip reef shark, healthy hard corals, green sea turtles, octopuses, eels, a humpback whale (once). But diving in Fiji was really different. There were clouds of fish, especially anthias; there were profusions of brilliantly colored soft corals�dendronephthya, fans, gorgonians; there were hundreds of crinoids climbing into the current and spreading their traps for plankton; there were schools of

barracuda and mackerel and trevally� Anemonefish and dascyllus taking refuge in their anemones� Huge acropora corals, with several varieties of small fish hiding among the branches� The huge variety, the rare and unusual fish and invertebrates, were all breath-taking.

The Nai'a uses a really good system for getting to dive sites. The Nai'a itself serves as a �mother ship,� and it then sends out skiffs to the dive sites. The two skiff drivers, Little Mo (about 6�6� and well-muscled) and Big Mo (perhaps a little larger), each take a group to the dive site, or to two different dive sites within a short ride (2 or 3 minutes) from the boat. They then cruise around the surface

looking for people surfacing at the end of the dive, then pick them up and take them back to the boat. (It never took them more than a minute or two to get to us at the end of the dive, either, even in the roughest water. The one time I raised my safety sausage, Mo was a little offended I thought he

wouldn�t see me. I was really only doing it for practice, anyway.) Most people could manage to climb into the skiffs, but Mo and Mo never minded helping me get in; I just couldn�t seem to get over the side. They would literally lift me out of the water (one-handed, too!) and drop me into the bottom of the boat, then help me get my fins off.

It�s possible to join a dive master (Rusi and Richard) for every dive, or cruise on your own. The dive masters were great at finding requested subjects for the photographers. A very thorough dive briefing before each dive allowed for allocation of divers to dive masters, and planning for what you wanted to

see. The Nai'a diving is not for beginners, in my opinion. I learned more about diving in those two weeks than I had in the previous hundred dives: drift diving, mid-water safety stops, depth management, deep diving, dive planning� The Nai'a assumes you�re a certified adult and lets you dive your own profile. I asked about requirements for coming up with 500 psi and the reply was �if you suck the tank completely dry, let us know so we can inspect the tank�� (There were a few dives where I really wanted to stay down until that last breath, too!)

I complained that the first dive�the checkout dive�was pretty bad. Well, the next dive, the next morning, was to a dive site called �Mello Yello� for its lush yellow soft corals, which came out in the current. Yes, lots of current. Fiji is pretty much entirely drift diving, which is one of the things that makes the Nai'a�s setup perfect. There was a twin dive site to

Mello Yello called Maytag, after its washing-machine-like currents. The currents on Mello Yello washed across huge healthy yellow and red and orange and purple soft corals, clouds of anthias cruised the reef, butterflyfish and angelfish abounded� When I reached the surface, I asked Kevin�Kevin and Val Tear were the cruise directors�what I had to do to get a job on the boat. I don�t think he thought I was serious, but I sure didn�t want to go home, ever, after that dive. And that was only the beginning.

In Fiji, the dive sites are mostly coral �islands� called bommies. These are roundish and rise from the bottom, which can be thousands of feet below, although more usually the bottom was at 100 to 150 feet or so. The currents caused by the tides sweep around the bommies, which is why most dives are drift dives. One way I warmed up when I felt chilled

was to swim into the current for a while. (In fact, despite the excellent and plentiful food, I lost 5 pounds during the trip.) There was always a place to duck into the reef and avoid the current�where the photographers could always be found�but I enjoyed the gorgeous corals and schools of fish I found out in the current.

We were on a 14-day �exploratory cruise� which visited both well-known sites like E-6 and also some previously unknown sites. Most of the sites were in the Bligh Waters, but I have to admit the only way I�d be sure of the location would be to ask the Nai'a exactly where we were. The list below gives names and the highlights from my log book:

North Save-A-Tack, where I spent the entire dive in the Kansas shallow flats (named for the golden corals): I saw a clown triggerfish, and a very large emperor angelfish� I watched a small Napoleon wrasse being cleaned, standing on his head, by a group of small cleaner wrasses. And I saw three lionfish,  including

one with his fins fully spread and looking just like a bird sunning himself�

New Teton: I watched three jacks hunt back and forth across the top of the reef, while the anthias ducked into the coral and re-emerged after each pass. A large barracuda swam by during the dive. It was at New Teton that I learned to use a

reef hook, which is why I was watching the jacks hunt across the top. Currents swept over the top, and it was hard to stay in one place, even swimming as hard as I could, so Kevin loaned me his reef hook, and I �flew� in the current until my air was almost gone. When I unhooked the reef hook to ascend, I went

flying off the reef and drifted about 200 yards from the bommie during my 5 minute safety stop� (Yes, you must be able to do a mid-water safety stop without an ascent line.)

Schoolhouse: at Schoolhouse, there were either three large gray reef sharks, or a single shark who hung around to watch us� A sleeping whitetip in the sand, and lots of barracuda, including a line of yellowtail barracuda.

Little Thumb (also called Peewee): Jay and I did a

crepuscular (dusk) dive at Little Thumb. When I found two cleaner shrimp looking for customers at the edge of a cavern, I held my hand still for them. One jumped right onto my hand and cleaned the cuticles (which tickled). I was bored long before he was done. We found several banded pipefish, and lots of shrimp, nudibranchs, and a seven-armed red linckia sea star.

Wakaya: this is the house reef for a luxury resort, and unfortunately, it�s been badly bleached. We dove at Wakaya three times, though, because we found unusual creatures all day� There were blue ribbon eels (lots of them), leaf scorpionfish, tassled scorpionfish, rabbitfish, gorgeous parrotfish with color patterns

found in none of the fish ID books. I watched a titan triggerfish blowing sand to hunt for crustaceans. When Jay and I went out for a crepuscular dive, there were about a dozen lionfish out hunting across the top of the reef. While he photographed them, I watched an octopus hunt, while a goatfish waited patiently next to it for the scraps. Wakaya had a warm current across the top of the reef; it was in the same spot all day, though, and it�s my belief it�s a hot spring, which might explain some of the bleaching at Wakaya.

Nigali Pass: this is a �valley� between two bommies. The current sweeps through, and there are spots on the side (�the bleachers�) where you can take refuge from the current. Here, Kevin anchored a bucket with frozen fish parts, and we waited for the sharks to come in. While 6 or 7 gray reef sharks came to feed, several dozen red bass and a large black trevally got

most of the food. The sharks were very calm about the food, though; they would simply cruise in and gently (but firmly) push the other fish out of the way to get what they wanted. I ended up about five feet away from the bucket (I�d intended to be farther away!) and never felt at all threatened. These were very relaxed and self-confident sharks, and they didn�t think people were interesting. Several of the sharks had remoras, and one had a large isopod. After the food was gone, I let go of my spot, and the current swept me up the slope and over the reef flat, where I found schools of copper sweepers amid fields of lettuce coral, a pair of blackfin dartfish, and a pair of reticulated butterflyfish.

Mount Mutiny: we dove twice at Mount Mutiny. We saw several hawksbill turtles, one of which was so oblivious to our presence that Rusi held broken coral bits for it while it nibbled the sponges and algae off the coral. Small wrasses waited underneath the turtles for the scraps. There were huge schools of anthias (which I actually came to take for granted), and a

trumpetfish shadowing a parrotfish, and a school of Heller�s barracuda and surgeonfish. I also saw a midnight angelfish�gorgeous. The hanging coral at 95 feet were spectacular.

E6: the famous E6 has suffered some minor bleaching, we were told. It was nonetheless gorgeous, and we dove there four times without really seeing all of it. There were spawning damselfish and shrimp gobies. Up in the rubbly shallows, as I did my safety stop at the end of the first dive at E6, I watched a school of 2-foot mackerel get themselves cleaned by cleaner

wrasses, who entered their mouths and gills as they stood on their tails, flushing black. When they were done, they shook their tails and turned back to silver, swimming off one by one.

At E6, Chuck Tribolet and I actually managed to surprise the crew of the Nai'a. Over dinner, we plotted a pre-dawn dive to E6� got the crew�s agreement� and then actually got up at 4AM and did it. Many had planned; none (before us) had actually done it. We were anchored in the lee of the reef at E6, so we (quietly) entered from the back of the

Nai'a, swam along the boat and then along the anchor line, then explored E6�s �cathedral� area. It was VERY different from what we saw there during the day. There were white and orange anemones that had crawled out onto the sea fans, schools of cardinal and squirrel fish in the currents off the reef, swimmer crabs, many brittle stars out hunting� I�d wanted to go out in the pre-dawn after reading about it; this was the first time I found someone willing to go with me. (Thanks, Chuck.) It was lovely to come up into the sunrise at the end of the dive, and the Nai'a�s crew was there waiting for us, to help us onto the boat.

Later that day, during a night dive in the E6 cathedral, I saw a pair of ghost pipefish pretending to be algae�at about 45 feet, in a dark cavern. I fell for the camouflage, and it wasn�t until the next morning that I realized that I hadn�t seen algae at all, but ghost pipefish. This resulted in grumpy photographers, and I still feel somewhat guilty about it.

Mello Yello: there were groups of sergeant majors in their breeding colors, twenty or more in several protected areas, guarding their eggs. And huge schools of anthias�and massive, colorful tree corals�

Go Mo Reef: Go Mo Reef was a new site, spotted as a potential site by Mo, who found my favorite dive site of the trip. Go Mo was near Lighthouse, but it had clearly never been dived before (if it was, they were very careful divers� as I hope we were). The sea fans had no broken tips; unbroken stony corals and huge schools of unafraid fish. I saw a pair of clown

triggerfish, a green-sided eel, longnose filefish, a humphead wrasse, and bignose unicornfish (a great name). The sea fans were huge and colorful; the tree corals brilliant and glowing in health. We dove Go Mo Reef three times�currents from two directions, and in slack current. While the current was a bit on the fierce side, the corals definitely loved it!

Then, there was the Crown Massacre� Just a few miles (maybe less!) from Go Mo Reef, we found another new dive site, now nicknamed the Crown Massacre. Tens of Crown of Thorns sea stars devouring a dead and bleached reef� We did see a few interesting critters: a single anemone with two different species of anemonefish; nudibranchs and

flatworms, midnight angels, and a harem of what appeared to me to be flame wrasses, with one male and four females. A quick check of the fish id books, however, told me that flame wrasses are only found in Hawaii (where I have seen them), and no one else saw them, so they�ll have to remain unidentified. (There are a few wrasses that have juvenile stages in which they resemble flame wrasses�but that doesn�t explain the male that was flaring his fins.)

Cat�s Meow: this dive site really was everything it was supposed to be: fourteen harlequin sweetlips, lined up at a cleaning station at the base of the bommies (in about 70 feet of water)� Two huge groupers I didn�t even try to identify (all those big spotted groupers look alike to me, I�m afraid); a pair of elongate surgeonfish; a tiny green bubble-tipped anemone with even-tinier

anemonefish; a big tuna; and a school of prowling blue trevallies. AND gorgeous hard and soft coral on the top.

From Cat�s Meow, we went back again to Mello Yello, where we saw a huge school of fusiliers and a lone barracuda. There was a huge clump of featherdusters, about twenty of them in a small area; large schools of anthias; and a pretty folded and swirling anemone with green spots on its base and unusually large anemonefish in its protection.

Our final dives of the trip were at Golden Sunset, where we sheltered from the wind and rough weather in the lee of the reef. While we dove, in fact, a boat overturned just outside of Lautoka harbor and several fishermen drowned in the rough conditions. It was relatively calm at Golden Sunset, however, because of the protection of the reef.

At Golden Sunset, there were two giant morays sharing a hole, being cleaned. They were very shy, ducking back into their hole if I came too close. On the third dive there, when I tried to show Rusi the divemaster the eels, only one of them was willing to be seen. For quite a while, I watched an ornate prawn goby and his prawn work on their burrow. The prawn would bring out one piece of coral sand, carry in a different one, then come out with yet another piece of sand� It was like watching someone build a stone wall, testing different stones to see how they fit into the wall� Golden Sunset was named for its masses of yellow soft corals, but there were soft corals in all colors. It was a gorgeous dive site; we got a brief glimpse of sun streaming through the brightly colored Dendronephthya corals�it made me wish I could do glass sculptures, as that might allow me to show someone else what those were like!

A school of unicornfish amused me by pointing themselves into the steady (but not overwhelming) current; two of us snuck up on a school of sleeping yellowtail barracuda� it was a good finish to a wonderful trip.
After Golden Sunset, we commenced to motoring back to Lautoka, cleaning up, washing wet suits, packing� We docked overnight in Lautoka harbor, and left the boat the next morning. We plan to return soon. 

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